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How to keep a one person Learning and Development team afloat

12th Mar 2014
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We understand that being a one person Learning and Development department can often feel like you are a solitary sailor charged with keeping a ship much bigger than yourself afloat. In addition to this, rising expectations from your company can make it seem like the ship you are in charge of sailing has to traverse even higher sea levels and choppier conditions. Finally, when you throw falling budgets into the mix – you are faced with an even more difficult task, almost as if that ship of yours has several leaks. So how on earth do you keep a massive ship (like a 1000 person company) floating by yourself, in increasingly choppier waters whilst dealing with a major leak? Herein lies the trials and tribulations of a one person Learning and Development team.

Busy Learning and Development

With the economic conditions still majorly affecting the globe, we all know that L&D departments are one of the heaviest hit, with studies such as the CIPD Learning and Talent Development 2013 report showing that headcounts and budgets are still struggling to rise from the trough they currently find themselves in with the public sector in particular facing falling resources, funds and headcounts. This had led to one person or very small L&D teams becoming increasingly common in even some of the larger companies. Therefore the problems outlined above are faced by many professionals every day. Of course there is no easy fix or proven formula to solve these issues however, due to our experience working with such people we feel we have come up with several ways to lessen the load – it’s time to steady the ship!

Get a map – set a course

In 2010 a man had to be rescued off the coast of the Isle of Sheppey. He had planned to sail from Gillingham to Southampton but had brought only a road map. This error led to him circling around the Isle of Sheppey for 36 hours until running out of fuel. He met the coast guard in Queenborough 14 miles down the road. The point here is because he didn’t have a useful map and set a route, he ended up going round in circles without knowing and going nowhere before failing humiliatingly. The same can happen in a one person L&D department. You can get so busy doing the day to day activities expected of you that at no point do you get a chance to sit down, set targets and aim your department in that direction. In the end, all your hard work can end up getting you nowhere.

Compass

Operational duties keep your department going but it is strategic thinking that will likely decide your success. As a one person department, don’t neglect targets and goal setting -otherwise how do you know if what you are doing is the right thing? Measurement then comes hand in hand with the targets. You need to make sure that you are recording as much data as possible so that you can set your goals and then actually measure to see if you have achieved them. Again, this recording of data can seem like a necessary sacrifice when faced with a full inbox – but testing and measuring is the backbone of any strategy. Allow for deviations in your plan though – as very few will ever go off without a hitch.

Finally, when setting these goals, make sure they are aligned with and agreed upon by higher management. This way you can ensure you are all on the same page and you are all agreed by what is expected of you. Make sure that they understand you are a one person crew. If a crew on the same ship are all working towards getting that ship to go different locations at different speeds, you are likely to go nowhere. Work with colleagues outside of L&D and management to ensure everyone is working towards getting your ship going the same way.

Build a Flotilla – Network.

One of the first things to remember is that you are not alone in being in this position. There are many companies out there with either one person or very lightly staffed L&D teams who themselves are also facing the same troubles. A flotilla is where a group of small ships join together into a solid formation. This makes a strong structure that on their own they wouldn’t normally be able to manage. You can do the same by networking.

By networking with other people in similar positions as you, you can all share your own experiences and problems and help each other overcome them – as you or another person may have already faced that issue yourself and solved it. Research networking websites and groups so you can get in contact with other people for mutual benefit. If there isn’t one already, then why not start one? The chances are there are several people out there that feel the same way so you shouldn’t struggle for lack of members. LinkedIn is a fantastic medium to do so as you can easily create a group where discussions, polls and connections can be made. We actually created a group ourselves for this purpose – so fellow L&D professionals can connect with each other.

Don’t be afraid to talk to and learn from people in larger L&D departments either. The chances are they started off like you but have found ways around the problems which has ultimately led them to being in that job. So learn about best practice in the larger corporations as they may be applicable to you.

Don’t scrub the decks if you are better steering the ship

So many people end up spending all of their time trying to make themselves average at something they are poor at rather than building upon something they are already strong at. However what is more likely to have a positive effect on you and your business – you being average at everything or the best in your field at just a few things? The latter gives you the competitive edge.

If admin isn’t your strong point or maybe you have very little experience in a subject area – why not delegate these to someone else? Although it may feel like you are all alone in your situation there will likely be help for you both externally and internally. Internally, why not ask the different departments to do their bit in helping you. This can be as simple as each department head communicating what training they want in order to identify possible in-house opportunities. Or it could be ensuring that they have sent over as much information as possible before sending it your way, saving you the precious time it takes to find out simple things such as a candidate’s middle name. These are small things for each department to do but can be a massive task for one person to do it all. So tell them this and see if you can get their support.

Externally there are plenty of organisations that can assist.   We help L&D teams with jobs such as training administration, price negotiation and sourcing the high quality providers. No L&D professional can be expected to be an expert in every area that they will likely be buying training for, but how can you know who is offering what you want if you don’t really understand it. A Managed Learning Service can use their experience to find the best companies for the lowest prices. So if your boat is struggling in some choppy seas, don’t be afraid to radio for help as there are people you know and that you don’t, who can answer that call for help.

Delegation

 

Prioritisation

Question – your boat has just sprung a severe leak but at almost exactly the same time, a seagull has defecated on your mast. What do you fix first? Again, this may seem like an easy question to answer and to follow in life, but it is unbelievable how many people we have found that will sort out the mast before fixing the potentially life threatening leak. Whether it is because the smaller job seems easier or that you just haven’t put the thought into what action will have the biggest positive effect on the business – people often choose the less important task. The answer is simple – prioritisation.

Due to the fact you have less staff than the average department, your time is more precious than it would be if you were in a team of 10. Put it this way, if you are a one person team and you spend an hour of your 8 hour day on an unimportant task – that’s an hour where the entire L&D department has done nothing of use. So make sure it is spent on what will have the most impact on the organisation. This can be done by outsourcing your weaknesses as previously mentioned and making sure that you concentrate on 2 or 3 high value tasks rather than 7 or 8 tasks of differing value. This way you will likely complete the 2 or 3 and to a high standard rather than rushing around and either semi completing or completing to a low standard the 7 or 8 tasks. These methods are championed by firms such as FranklinCovey and books such as Brian Tracy’s ‘Eat that Frog’ and are an excellent way of managing your time.

Know when to turn back

Imagine the situation. You have come up with an exciting new strategy for your department and had it given the all clear by management. However as time goes on, the results are disappointing and they are only getting worse. It may be tempting in this situation to keep pushing on with this, as the idea was yours alone and you are largely responsible for its success. This can be like trying to sail against the current and the wind though – an ultimately low value or even pointless endeavour that takes up more energy than other activities for less gains. Start sailing with the wind and tide!

Why row if you can get a motor?

The L&D industry is currently in a period where we are experiencing an explosion of technologies that are changing the way we do things. As a small L&D team, you more than most will have to keep up to date with what is out there because otherwise you just won’t have the time to get everything done. Why keep struggling along with a couple of oars if there are affordable and easily accessible motors on the market?

Learning Portals are becoming increasingly popular with companies due to their ability to speed up a number of processes associated with booking training. The fact they keep all of the data needed in one place means it is no longer just you who is capable of searching for the right courses, times and locations of training. Again, the searching part of training sourcing may not take much time of each individual candidate’s day, but doing all of the searches for the company will take up a huge chunk of any L&D professional’s time. There are also a whole plethora of eLearning options available– spend a decent amount of time analysing them and see if they could get the same results for less time and money.

Speed Boat

 

Even a captain can improve

Finally, the cardinal and yet surprisingly common sin of the L&D professional is to not practise what they preach. We spend our entire career telling people to continually learn and to aim to develop themselves, choosing out the right training that will allow people to reach their full potential all the while forgetting to do any of these things ourselves. When was the last time you spent time on your own development?

Being a one person L&D team means that your knowledge of training and the industry is only one of the few things that you will need in order to succeed. Time management, communication, negotiation, internal marketing and conflict management amongst many other skills are all things that will have just as large effects on your job – so you can’t afford to ignore them. Make sure you save some budget and make some time for yourself to spend dedicated time on your own development, you know what approach you prefer.  Aim to improve the parts of yourself that will have a large effect on the business and for you.

Plain sailing from now on?

We hope you find some of these pointers useful in helping you master the unpredictable ocean that is the one person L&D department a little bit better. If you remember to regularly look back at these tips and try to implement as many of them as possible then we are sure you will find your job getting a little bit easier with each tip you use.

With all of these points, the main thing to remember is that even if you are on your own, you can’t do everything without any help. Therefore it is your job as much as anything, to find ways in which to make what would normally be an entire L&D team’s job, something you can do on your own. Whether this is finding help from within your organisation, externally through companies such as Managed Learning Services or through a learning technology such as Learning Portals you will need some extra pairs of hands otherwise you will quickly find yourself captaining a sinking ship.

Remember, that your company will likely understand the gravity of the task that faces you so never be afraid to shoot off a flare to show you need support. You won’t lose control or put your skills under doubt by asking for help, but you may well do if you suffer in silence and start to make mistakes – leaving your ship on the ocean floor. Now go onwards – and conquer the seven seas!

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By [email protected]
11th Apr 2014 13:21

Many companies have cut L&D to the bone and the only means of survival is employing some of the initiatives in the above article. I have always advocated employing trained SMEs or business coaches; outsourcing some of the training solutions and/or embarking on a well thought through Blended/eLearning approach to ease the pain in the longer term. Networking too - you're never alone!

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